Stress makes you stupid

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…or at least it does me. When I’m overwhelmed by deadlines, I say and do some dumb things. I alternately babble or go mute at meetings, I snap at my husband when he calls, and I barely suppress murderous feelings toward tourists who block my path in Times Square. Even my body becomes unintelligent, refusing to digest food or succumb to sleep.

This is because stress affects emotional intelligence, says Dr. Steven Stein. The EQ expert came to visit me here at TIME last week to discuss some new studies conducted by his company, Multi-Health Systems. EQ, if you recall, was popularized in the mid-’90s by Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence and TIME’s widely read 1995 cover, “The EQ Factor,” by Nancy Gibbs. It refers to the skills that allow a person to intuit other people’s feelings, to convey their own, to communicate–and has little to do with book-learnin’. In the decade since, workplace psychologists have pounced on this subject, pouring hours of research into determining, for instance, if EQ can be acquired, developed, quantified and measured.

Stein’s business studies many aspects of EQ, and has developed a system of assessment. His latest research focuses on the effects of stress on EQ. According to Stein’s research,

A strong emotional intelligence can help build positive relationships with colleagues and improve performance – the ideal formula for workplace success. But if stress prevents us from being aware of and controlling our emotions, getting along with others, adapting to changes, and maintaining a positive mood, then our EI is going to suffer. In fact, it has been scientifically demonstrated that emotional intelligence is actually more important in predicting success in the workplace than IQ (cognitive intelligence).

Stein found that 42% of working Americans–and by working he means blue-collar, service and professional–say they “frequently” experience stress in the workplace. Yet 48% had no clue that emotional intelligence can be negatively affected by stress, and few if any people do anything about it. That doesn’t surprise him; after all, he says, “only one out of nine people actually change their behavior after a heart attack, and that’s even when they’re told they must change or die.”

According to Stein, stress harms a worker in many ways:
• It affects decision-making, making us too impulsive.
• It forces us to make mistakes.
• It causes us to ignore cues.
• It interferes with relationships with clients and colleagues.
• It lowers productivity.

Short of winning the lottery and making work-related stress disappear, workers do have some recourse, as do their employers. For workers, Stein suggests these three steps:
1. Do, delegate, delay. Prioritize, says Stein. Figure out what needs to be done, what can be done by someone else, and what can be put off. That gives people a sense of control, which helps reduce stress.
2. Turn to your social network. “It’s really helpful to have a best friend at work,” says Stein. “It’s good to have someone to confide in: Is the workload really this terrible? Is our boss really that bad?”
3. Determine your purpose. “It helps a lot of people to step back and see the big picture. Whether you’re in shipping of making shoes, in the end everyone wants to feel like they’re helping people.”

Bosses can play a big role in reducing employee stress, which, Stein notes, can pay off big time, as 53% of Americans say stress dampens their productivity in the workplace.
1. Assess employee work load. These days, it seems like everyone’s working harder with fewer staff. Is it too much? Are some doing more than others? Listen to your supervisors and workers.
2. Set goals. This can be done during evaluations. Every employee should know his or her goals.
3. Redefine purpose. Take Timberland. The company stresses their environmental message, which helps workers feel there’s a greater purpose than just selling shoes.
4. Encourage social support. Employers tend to think friendship and social events are a waste of time. They couldn’t be more wrong. Studies say workers who feel happy and socially supported work harder. At Stein’s company, the entire staff gathers for Friday morning bagel breakfasts. Marketing managers meet scientists. “It costs so little, and there are really important networks made,” he says.

Hmm. My boss cut out our Wednesday sandwich lunches last month. And a once regular TIME tradition–the Champagne “pour”–has largely gone the way of the in-house printing press. And my network of work buddies pretty much vanished with the layoffs earlier this year. No wonder my EQ borders on retardation.

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